Hollywood cinema – with just a handful of exceptions – has veered towards action scenes that have lost their punch

For almost as long as the moving picture’s existed, there have been stunts. One early name that immediately springs to mind is actor and filmmaker Buster Keaton, who in the silent era, did wild things like leap from one dizzyingly tall building to another, stood in precisely the right spot to avoid being killed by the collapsing frontage of a house, or hung from the back of a moving streetcar. Decades later, Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan paid homage to Buster Keaton by hanging from the back of a moving bus in 1985’s Police Story.

In 2022, Buster Keaton’s work still captures the imagination – in January of this year, several outlets began writing about his films as clips of them went viral online.

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But why do these high-wire, dangerous-looking feats appeal to us? I’d argue it’s because – whether we realise it or not – we’re all fascinated by the laws of physics. Buster Keaton understood better than anyone that cinema is about movement and kinetic energy. One of the climactic scenes in 1926’s The General, which Keaton co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, sees a burning bridge collapse under the weight of a train. It lasts a handful of seconds, but it’s one of the most jaw-dropping (and expensive) moments in early cinema: we can sense the heft of the locomotive as the wooden bridge twists and splinters under the strain.

Nearly a century later, and movies that capture that same level of weight and energy are in worryingly short supply. As CGI has allowed filmmakers to create increasingly outlandish action sequences – whether it’s a superhero swinging through a city or Dwayne Johnson fleeing from an earthquake – what we increasingly find ourselves watching are actors performing against a green screen. In many instances, there aren’t any humans on the screen at all – the entire scene is digital.

Not that there’s anything wrong with CGI. Without it, it’s unlikely that some of the most successful and beloved mainstream films of the past 30 or so years would have existed in the same form. Thanks in large part to CGI, we’ve seen dinosaurs return from extinction in Jurassic Park, and watched superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman and Wonder Woman perform feats that were once the preserve of comic books.  But while 2000’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man helped usher in a new era of superhero movies at the start of the millennium, they also set cinema on a path where weightless, all-CGI action sequences have become ubiquitous.

The otherwise wonderful Black Panther was marred by a disappointing climactic fight scene where two superb actors are replaced by a pair of computer-generated marionettes. Key scenes in the otherwise perfectly acceptable Black Widow are marred by blatantly rushed shots of actors emoting against a green screen. And was anyone particularly dazzled by the frictionless bit where Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman fought Doomsday at the end of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice?

The Old Guard

The Old Guard

Not that the gripe is restricted to superhero movies, though; for every terrific physical stunt in the Fast & Furious movies (such as Fast Five and its ‘let’s drag a safe through the streets of Rio’ sequence), there are at least five scenes created using digital vehicles (see Fast & Furious 9’s opening set-piece, where a SUV drives across a collapsing CGI bridge. Buster Keaton it was not.)

Mark Wahlberg-headlined 2021 sci-fi adventure Infinite has action scenes that somehow manage to become more detached from reality as the film plods on, with events building to scene where Wahlberg’s character clings unconvincingly to the side of a moving CGI plane. The special effects are by no means terrible, but neither can they provide the same wind-in-the-hair thrill of, say, Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a real plane in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Cruise is, of course, one of the few western film stars who, even at the ripe age of 60, is still keen to feature at the centre of action scenes that are in large part captured in-camera. Cruise’s more recent Mission: Impossible films are an interesting contrast to Netflix’s Red Notice, released in 2021. A star vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot, it’s a globe-trotting action adventure with a side-helping of comedy. Come to think of it, Red Notice could have been a vehicle for Jackie Chan and, say, Samo Hung in the 1980s. But where Jackie and Samo would almost certainly have thrown themselves through a real stained glass window and dropped several feet down onto a reel clay tile roof,  Red Notice uses generous dollops of green screen and CGI. (To be fair to the film’s makers, there are some great physical stunts in Red Notice, too, though the moments where Reynolds is hurriedly switched for his double are painfully easy to spot.)

Mad Max Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road

The incredibly kinetic (and Buster Keaton inspired) Mad Max: Fury Road aside, the best action scenes tend to be found in lower-budget films, such as Gareth Edwards’ witheringly intense The Raid. There’s more tension and sense of danger in one of that film’s fight sequences, I’d argue, than in an entirety of, say, Netflix’s The Old Guard.

I do wonder, though, whether even mainstream movie-going audiences are becoming a bit bored with weightless action sequences, too. Over the past few days, Top Gun: Maverick surpassed Titanic as Paramount’s most successful movie in the US, having made over a billion dollars at the box office. While nostalgia and familiarity with the Top Gun name will have played their part, I’d also argue that the film’s in-camera flight scenes were its big draw. There’s a genuine joy to seeing its actors sitting in the cockpits of real planes, and seeing how the stresses and G-forces of flight affect them.

Look at the scene where an experimental fighter jet passes low over Ed Harris’s head near the start of the movie: we see desert dust whipped up in mighty curls, while the roof the building to Harris’s left briefly flicks into the air. That scene was shot for real. The quaking roof was a happy accident. It’s the sort of thing that isn’t easy to fake with even the most expensive visual effects.

After decades of increasingly flat, CGI-heavy action scenes, perhaps movie makers and movie-goers alike are beginning to realise this as well. Digital artists have created all kinds of unforgettable images over the past few decades – and let’s face it, there’s still CG trickery even in Top Gun Maverick. But it’s vital, I’d argue, that cinema stays connected to what Buster Keaton understood a century ago: that cinema isn’t about just simulating the sight of, say, clinging to the side of a moving plane.

It’s about capturing the stresses, the strains, the air pressure pulling at every sinew. Cinema is, at heart, about movement and energy.

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